SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not seen “Zoo Balloon,” Episode 13 of “Abbott Elementary.”
Like his “Abbott Elementary” character Gregory Eddie, Tyler James Williams is a bit nerdy.
Gregory, as a result of his father’s indoctrination, has an encyclopedic knowledge of gardening tactics. He struggles to express himself, making interior design faux pas in his classroom until fellow teacher Janine (series creator Quinta Brunson) steps in to help. He’s a picky eater who hates pizza, and often spends his lunch hour eating a sandwich alone in his car, even though his colleagues welcome his company.
Williams’ nerdiness, rather, centers network television. He’s developed specific goals about the kinds of characters he’d like to bring to primetime, unironically uses the phrase “industry IQ” and knows more than most about the nitty gritty of the ratings systems that often dictate a show’s fate — which has come in handy lately. When ABC renewed “Abbott Elementary” for a second season, the network cited its status as the No. 1 comedy in the adults 18-49 demo, tied with CBS’ ‘Ghosts.’ The show is also ABC’s top-rated new comedy in two years, and its first two episodes averaged 9 million viewers and a 2.93 rating in adults 18-49 after 35 days of viewing via linear and digital.
Williams is best known for spending his adolescence playing the title character in UPN and later the CW’s “Everybody Hates Chris” and appearing as Noah in Season 5 of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” from 2014 to 2015. Throughout his career, the 29-year-old has gotten it down to a science which of his roles different fans in public recognize him for.
“If their eyes go sad, it’s probably ‘The Walking Dead,’” he says. “If they’re giddy and childlike, it’s ‘Everybody Hates Chris.’ When they get particularly buzzy, like there’s a musicality to their voice, then it’s [Disney Channel movie] ‘Let it Shine.’ And ‘Abbott,’ they’re still trying to lock it in their head. They’re like, ‘I just saw — Abbott? Yes, that’s what it is.’ They’re still getting used to it being in the forefront of their brain, becoming part of their rhythms.”
Speaking to Variety, Williams analyzed the Season 1 finale, the show’s ratings success and fan discourse of “Abbott Elementary.”
Much of “Abbott Elementary” is based on the experiences of Quinta’s mother, a retired teacher. What memories stick out from the teachers you had as a child?
I spent up until sixth or seventh grade in a traditional brick-and-mortar school, and then came out to L.A. to do a show and had studio teachers for some time. What I got from both is flexibility. The two teachers who really influenced my high school experience were Nancy Flint and Sharon Sacks, who somehow managed to educate me in the midst of me leading a show at the same time. That’s what I brought to this. Our show is very much about the flexibility of teachers, working within the confines of difficulties and underfunding. We have a real opportunity to humanize a group of people and tell their story in a way that could change the everyday person’s life on a daily basis. And that’s what I think network TV is supposed to do.
At what point did it sink in to you that the show was a hit?
I hate to sound cocky, but we were all pretty clear from the moment we shot the pilot that we had something very unique. If you applied your industry IQ by way of casting and network placement, it looked on paper like it would work. I looked at Sheryl Lee Ralph [who plays Barbara, an older teacher], because she was the only one I could look to [who had also led a network series]. I was like, “I know you’ve had this feeling before, because I’ve had it before. Do you feel what I feel?” She was like, “Yeah, this one’s special, and I think we may be here for a while.”
But officially, I have a message somewhere in my text thread with Quinta. When the January 4 episode aired, I said, “I’m calling it a hit now.” Because of the way it was trending, and the way we were holding numbers, when +3s came in …
It’s funny that you bring up Live+3s, because Quinta has joked online about not understanding the different ratings metrics.
She’d call me like, “OK, so what does this mean?” I was explaining our trend lines and what we could expect. There’s usually that Episode 4, 5 and 6 drop off, where you drop down about point two points from wherever you are, and we never hit that. I was like, “You have to understand the gravity of it. You have to. I know they’re just numbers, but this is kind of huge.” And when we saw those +3s, it was really interesting to be able to explain some of it, having gone through it before. It was nice to watch them figure it out for the first time.
It’s clear that Janine and Gregory are heading towards an eventual romance, but what do you make of Gregory’s budding relationship with Barbara’s daughter Taylor (Iyana Halley)?
We have this will-they/won’t-they, which has been done frequently, and it’s been done really well. So we didn’t want to do the same thing again. I’m curious to see how this dynamic affects him and Barbara’s relationship, because now, he’s not just this guy from work. You’re dating my daughter. Barbara serves as a mother for everybody on this show, but she has this tough love aspect with Gregory, making sure that he reaches his potential very quickly — because we don’t have time for you not to.
Tell me about shooting the scene in the finale where Gregory thanks Janine for helping him find his place at Abbott as she’s realizing her relationship with her boyfriend Tariq (Zack Fox) is over.
I love that Gregory is emotionally open and able to speak what he feels. It’s something I’ve always wanted to bring to a character on network TV. There’s this open dialogue where he’s not afraid to say, “I wouldn’t have made it without you.” We need to see more of that on TV, because we’re in an era now where people don’t like to admit when they’re weak. They don’t like to have vulnerable moments with people and give them their flowers.
Fans often compare the mockumentary style of “Abbott Elementary” to “The Office,” and your character to Jim Halpert (John Krasinski). How does that show influence your performance?
It’s impossible for “The Office” not to be an influence. It’s the golden standard of this style. And Randall Einhorn, who [was a cinematographer and director] on “The Office” is one of our executive producers, and directed [six] episodes of this season. So there’s gonna be a lot of things that feel that way. However, for me, unfortunately, I can no longer watch “The Office.” Because I don’t want to bring things in that I’m not even cognizant of. I have to lose “The Office” in this process, so that we don’t end up directly stealing anything here.
It’s like the comparison between [Michael] Jordan and the Bulls and LeBron [James] and — not the Lakers now, because, geez, we’re not making playoffs … but you know what I mean? The fact that this is even the conversation, particularly as a Season 1 show, is incredibly humbling. It’s an honor. If that’s the bar that we’re being compared to, that’s where I would like to reside. I like high stakes. So if it comes down to, “Which one’s better? ‘The Office’ or ‘Abbott?’” I’ll take that fight every day.
Another fan phenomenon is that with each episode, more people realize that you’re Chris from “Everybody Hates Chris.”
It’s what any of us hopes, particularly those who started as young as we did, that the audience will grow with us and not outgrow us. And it’s been beautiful to watch them realize that, although it’s like … guys, I’ve been here for awhile. But it’s fine … It’s literally the same face. I don’t know what to tell you. In some ways, it’s a compliment. If I can morph into different people to the point where you have to realize that it’s me, then I’m doing my job. I’m not just carrying over tips and tricks from the last role.
My childhood will always be uniquely linked to Chris. Because so much of my childhood was him. My interpretation of Chris at that time was somebody who was emotionally intelligent and aware of what was happening in the world around him and empathetic. He took a lot of that in. That’s where the comedy played, him realizing how ridiculous everything was, and nobody else clocking that. And in some ways, that’s what’s happening with Gregory as well. He’s a really emotionally intelligent character. His version of intelligence wasn’t always seen as popular or important, and he’s kind of raging against that.
In another life, do you think you would ever be a teacher?
Before the show, my answer would have been, “Absolutely no.” I usually like other people’s kids to stay that: other people’s kids. But I don’t know, there is something about knowing that you’re in the process of them becoming who they’re going to become. And the little nuggets you give them here, you never know how that’s gonna pay off, these little bricks that build the house that is them. And I see how you kind of do get high from it! There’s something really fulfilling. I don’t know if I have the patience to do it day in and day out … but I’m not as hardlined as I used to be.
This interview has been edited and condensed.